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Utah files suit in wild lands issue

Published: Friday, April 29 2011 3:46 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — In an effort to further strengthen opposition to a controversial wild lands decision, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, in conjunction with the Utah Attorney General's Office, filed a lawsuit Friday against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

The lawsuit challenges Salazar's Secretarial Order 3310, which gives broad latitude to the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management to re-inventory the public lands within its purview for potential wild land characteristics.

Herbert said this upends an ongoing and successful process to designate wilderness land already in place in the state. 

"This order puts in jeopardy all that work, all that effort," he said. "It says, essentially, let's have a do-over."

Herbert said it would also hinder economic development in the areas in question — which could amount to "tens of millions of acres," according to Chief Deputy Attorney General John Swallow.

Currently, 1.6 million acres in Utah have been designated as wilderness.

Herbert was joined at the news conference by Swallow, county commissioners from Uintah and Washington counties, state public lands policy coordinator John Harja and environmental adviser Ted Wilson.

There are currently wilderness designation policies and programs in place in Washington and Uintah counties and others, with other counties planning to follow. Now, Herbert said the federal government seeks to use the order to start from scratch and to do so without going through the proper channels.

"This secretarial order was created out of thin air," Herbert said. "There was no statutory order to it. It's counterproductive to efforts we made in good faith. This is not good for Utah, not good for America."

The assertion is that the order also runs contrary to a settlement agreement reached by then-Gov. Mike Leavitt and the Department of Interior over such land designations.

Those decisions of declaring federal lands "wild" because of their characteristics are strictly within the purview of Congress, based on the settlement agreement reached in 2003.

The state's lawsuit is the second to address the issue, as the Utah Association of Counties and the Uintah County Commission filed a similar suit March 23.

Swallow said the two would most likely end up together before the same federal judge. Other states have been in talks to follow suit, literally, as Alaska, Idaho and Wyoming have all considered filing similar claims. 

In the meantime, a budget compromise that was reached in Congress earlier this month specifically prohibited the use of money to pay for the implementation of Secretarial Order No. 3310. 

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, released a statement Friday commending Herbert and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff for "leading the court battle against a wild lands policy that has already had and will continue to have detrimental effects on developing Utah’s natural resources."

He called the wild lands designation "pandering to extremist environmental organizations" on the part of the Obama administration and stated that he feels it could negatively effect development. 

"At a time when gas prices are reaching an all-time high and our country is facing severe economic challenges, the administration continues to obstruct domestic energy development," he said. "This action is absolutely irresponsible."

He said he is working on legislation "that will release federal lands from wilderness protections."

But Heidi McIntosh, associate director of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, called the lawsuit "an unfortunate bit of political theater."

"The BLM has always had the authority, since 1976, to protect lands in their natural condition and the wild lands policy was just a framework that would have allowed them to do that," she said. "That's it."

She said the concern that the executive branch implemented the policy in an effort to allow the federal government to reserve large swaths of land as wild lands is "not valid." She noted that there have been no decisions made on any management changes.

"The policy recognizes that only Congress can recognize wilderness, but the BLM also has the authority to go out and inventory lands, protect lands," McIntosh said.

Contributing: Richard Piatt

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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